Are we sliding inevitably into a surveillance society?
The rapid improvement of camera technology, bandwidth and above all, image recognition algorithms, has seen the spread of CCTV everywhere: combined with satellites and smartphones, we now find ourselves permanently under surveillance.
Initially a way to monitor specific places to prevent crime, such as in banks, the world is now a network of coordinated surveillance cameras capable of watching our every move, while more and more homes are installing cameras programed with algorithms capable of or identifying specific faces.
The trend has reached its apotheosis in China, history’s first Big Brother state, with more than 170 million outdoor CCTV cameras and an estimated 400 million due to be installed over the next three years, together with portable camera systems in glasses used by the police to identify anybody they question… or just look at. These cameras are controlled by algorithms capable of recognizing people and running checks on them by the authorities.
Should we be fearful China’s model will spread to the democracies of the West? China’s surveillance is not limited to its streets and is already in schools, with cameras monitoring how students behave, for example whether they are paying attention in class, as well as in the military, on assembly lines or train cabins to monitor drivers’ brain activity. Permanent surveillance, a part of everyday life, by algorithms that capture not only their movements, but also who they talk to; algorithms capable of recognizing a fight, a lover’s embrace, a gesture, that together with social rating systems, are used to create a to classify people according to their political affinity and that can be used to isolate potential dissidents by lowering the social credit score of anybody who has anything to do with them.
Other authorities have taken what might seem to be a more democratic approach to surveillance: Newark has installed cameras throughout the city that anyone can connect to via the internet. The idea is greater transparency, but critics say it could be used by stalkers and thieves.
In recent years, even democracies like the United Kingdom have shown a worrying tendency toward imposing greater control, passing laws that after heavy criticism from the United Nations, citizen rights groups, activists and technology companies, were partially withdrawn, but that clearly mark a trend. In contrast, Barcelona City Hall is pushing for greater transparency that would open up access to data to all.
In the private sector, Peter Thiel’s Palantir, which is capable of accessing huge amounts of data and constructing extremely detailed profiles based on online and offline behavior, along with usual suspects such as Facebook, have been criticized for breaching our privacy. Faced with dystopian models such as China or the kind of systematic surveillance now taking place in Sweden supposedly to protect us from terrorists and criminals, bodies like the ACLU or the EFF have launched campaigns to raise awareness of the dangers to civil liberties and outlining strategies to dismantle it, and arguing that mass surveillance is no use in fighting terrorism. What a few civil associations, funded through public donations, can do to slow down a global surveillance trend is open to question. Saying: ”I have nothing to hide and therefore nothing to fear” is mistaken and must be replaced in the collective imagination by a more progressive approach that defends our right to activism, appetite for change or peaceful protest.
Are we being herded into an Orwellian dystopia where everything we do is monitored 24/7? Are we now dependent on a few civil associations prevent this mutation? What are the alternatives?
(En español, aquí)